“One day my story gon’ pay.”
– Schoolboy Q, “Break the Bank”
Schoolboy Q, born Quincy Hanley, joined the Hoover Crips of South L.A. when he was 12 years old. Apparently his grandmother showed him his first gun. Hanley has said that, as a teenager and young man, selling drugs, gang-banging, and football were his life. At 21, he received a felony charge and served a six-month sentence. Around this same time, he released his first mixtape, 2008’s Schoolboy Turned Hustla, and not long after, his daughter Joy was born. By early 2011, when Top Dawg Entertainment released Setbacks, Q’s first digital-only album, he had given up gang life and doubled down on his music. The following year’s Habits & Contradictions brought wider-spread acclaim, and that March, Top Dawg announced that Q — along with label-mate Kendrick Lamar — had signed a deal with Interscope Records.
This is the story that Hanley hopes will pay on his major label debut. He has said that the oxymoron of its title is that he was doing all of these bad things — selling crack and Oxycontin, home invasions, etc. — for a good reason: so that he could provide for Joy.
Schoolboy Q may have left gang life behind, but in some ways, the oxymoron lives on. He has traded in the bad deeds themselves for the act of reliving them in his lyrics. He mines his personal history for material, and for capital, with the same end goal: to make a better life for his daughter. On “Break the Bank,” Q raps: “Go hard for my Joy so she don’t need no boy/ Smile stay on her face, big room with her own space.” But on the first track — which opens with Joy’s voice calling out: “Hello? Hello! Fuck rap! My daddy a gangsta” — Q rhymes about becoming a pimp. Here he is on “What They Want”: “Don’t trust no ho, I might sock the bitch.” And on “The Purge”: “Put my dick and nuts in her mouth, bust in her hair.” In the video for “Break the Bank,” Q sits at a piano in a bare room in the neighborhood where he grew up, as his daughter dances and pirouettes next to him in a cute little ballerina outfit. The video for “Man of the Year,” on the other hand, is classic rap fantasy: tropical setting, all-terrain vehicles, and a group of slightly-dressed women dancing around Q, “titties, ass, hands in the air.”
Oh well. Hypocrisy is nothing new in rap. As long as the beats are hot and the rhymes tight, right? Well, I guess so, but in truth, Schoolboy Q is neither a great lyricist nor a technically dazzling rapper. In his own words, he stays in his lane. His greatest attribute by far is charisma: he has a raspy, distinctive voice, and his delivery is energetic and pliant. On some of Oxymoron’s tracks — the first two are perhaps the best examples — he loads up the mix with layers of odd little vocal ad libs. On the opener, “Gangsta,” a range of sounds come out of Q’s mouth, from guttural unnhhhs and yeeeahs to high-pitched woot-woots. On “Los Awesome,” he ably mimics revving engines and exploding gunfire. These vocal embellishments gift the songs added energy and character, but in general — and there are exceptions to this, which I’ll get to — any given Schoolboy Q track is about as good as its beat.
Happily then, the production on Oxymoron is uniformly solid, with contributions from big names like Pharrell, Mike WiLL Made It, The Alchemist, and Tyler, The Creator, along with regular Top Dawg producers like THC and Digi+Phonics. Oxymoron’s two best beats are probably “Collard Greens” and “Studio.” The first, released as the album’s lead single last summer, is a bass-y, bouncy, atmospheric number produced by THC and Gwen Bunn. Q’s verses on the track are pretty standard fare — “Baller futuristic groovy gangsta with an attitude/ What these niggas make a year, I spend that on my daughter’s shoes” — but “Collard Greens” also has a flashy guest verse by Kendrick Lamar and a terrific hook that makes it the most fun, replayable song on the album. “Studio” is a slinking four-and-a-half-minute come-on with cloudy, bass-heavy production by Swiff D and another fantastic hook, this time by BJ The Chicago Kid. Schoolboy Q drops all pretenses here: “No metaphors, nothing like that, I’m keeping it straight to the point with you/ I’ma put this dick up all inside of you.” In truth, though, his verses are almost beside the point — “Studio” lives on its beat and its hook.
But back to those exceptions: there are a handful of moments on Oxymoron where Schoolboy Q goes deeper. The record is anchored in the middle by two long, multi-part tracks — “Hoover Street” and “Prescription/Oxymoron” — that approach Q’s past in a more contemplative and narrative style than elsewhere on the record. In the second part of “Hoover Street,” Q evocatively recalls moments out of his childhood. Here he is rapping about a junkie uncle: “His wife done left him, now he livin’ with us/ My bike is missing, grandma like to hide her check every month/ My uncle’s nuts, he used to give me whiskey to piss in cups/ Knockin’ on the door, tellin’ me to hurry up, he in a rush.” Two songs later, “Prescription/Oxymoron” opens with a pair of gut-punching verses about pill abuse over a creaking, Portishead-sampling beat. It’s probably Oxymoron’s most affecting moment. And then there’s the Alchemist-produced “Break the Bank,” which well-encapsulates the album as a whole. On this track, Q tells his tale — the rise from selling Oxy to sold-out shows — and chimes his refrain: “One day this rappin’ gon’ pay… One day my story gon’ pay.” And yes, it probably will.